Federal rules and also Massachusetts court precedent both help protect members of the public from state overreach. Police officers cannot conduct a search just because they want to go through someone’s property and find a reason to arrest them, for example. There are strict standards that apply to different types of searches conducted by police officers and other state officials.
When it comes to vehicle searches, there are typically three scenarios in which officers can search someone’s vehicle. If a situation does not involve one of the three scenarios below, then an officer’s search of a vehicle might prove illegal, which could affect whether or not the state can use the evidence gathered from the search in someone’s trial. An officer can generally search someone’s vehicle – lawfully – under the following circumstances.
When they have a warrant
When there is reasonable suspicion that someone’s vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, police officers can present what they know to a judge in pursuit of a search warrant. Provided that a judge agrees that the situation meets the necessary standard to issue a warrant, officers can obtain a signed document that effectively allows them to conduct a search of someone’s vehicle and possibly even take the vehicle into state custody for the search process.
When they have probable cause
Often, warrants aren’t necessary for vehicle searches because officers who encounter someone in a public area can see, hear or even smell something that gives them probable cause to search the vehicle. Seeing drug paraphernalia in the vehicle would be probable cause to suspect some kind of controlled substances offense. Smelling something fishy from the trunk could give an officer probable cause to search as well, as state law requires permits to fish. If an officer has a reasonable suspicion of a crime that they can articulate during a traffic stop or after a crash, they can potentially search a vehicle without a warrant.
When they have permission
One of the most common reasons that officers search a vehicle is because the driver gives them their consent to do so. Motorists too often think that cooperating with the police will help them settle the matter quickly. They fail to consider the officers could find something that a prior owner or a passenger in the vehicle left behind. Simply refusing to give an officer consent to search a vehicle would not be grounds for that officer to arrest someone or the probable cause an officer needs to search because they suspect a crime.
Learning about the rules that limit certain types of police conduct may help people better navigate an interaction with a police officer in ways that safeguard their rights.